February 29, 2016
I was a John Kasich optimist. He’s had a difficult path from the beginning, but after he finished second in New Hampshire, I could envision how he could pull an inside straight and somehow wind up stealing the nomination.
The odds of this miraculous confluence of circumstances was still in the lower single-digits, but there was a way. Some anti-Trump candidate is going to remain standing. There are too many Republican voters resolutely opposed to him for everyone to give up before he gets near 1237 delegates.
Because of this, I thought Carly Fiorina gave up too soon. She was actually widely acceptable among GOP voters and was a frequent second/third/fourth choice of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio supporters.
After New Hampshire, it wasn’t clear Rubio would recover from the debate and ensuing 5th place finish. Cruz ran the risk of finishing far behind Trump in South Carolina and Nevada. The logic was if those two proved unable to take The Donald down, an alternative would surface.
Fiorina had the advantage of being more conservative than Kasich, having higher favorability ratings, and being able to compete for insurgent/outsider-friendly voters. She also finished ahead of Kasich in Iowa, for whatever that’s worth.
Candidates who can’t crack 5 percent in either of the first two contests are normally supposed to drop out, so she did. Jeb Bush hung around because he could, but his negatives indicated he was not a feasible backup anti-Trump.
Fiorina and Kasich could make the argument that if they got substantial funding behind them, they could capitalize. Bush had proven he couldn’t. Ben Carson wasn’t plausible after the inner workings of his campaign imploded. Chris Christie finished third among governors in New Hampshire.
By process of elimination, Kasich entered South Carolina as the only plausible fallback if neither Cruz or Rubio could go the distance. The catch was he didn’t take up similar ideological space the way Fiorina did. While it doomed Carly in the short run, it made Kasich a worse substitute in the long run.
To win, Kasich needed a big March 15. Not just winning his home state of Ohio, but also finishing at or near the top in Illinois and Missouri.
To make that possible, he needed a strong second at worst in Michigan on March 8. It’s a strong state for Trump, so winding up a runner up at 28% was excusable. As the governor of a bordering state, a distant finish wouldn’t indicate real strength in his favored region.
To prepare for that, he needed a strong Super Tuesday. This didn’t mean finishing ahead of Trump, Cruz, or Rubio in the SEC states, but consistently winding up in low double-digits, ahead of Carson.
In addition, while defeating Trump in Vermont and Massachusetts was pushing it, a decent second place, ahead of Rubio, taking advantage of no Jeb and no Christie to exceed his New Hampshire percentage, would help.
If he wanted that result, he needed double-digits in South Carolina. The first polls after New Hampshire already had him in reach. The most favorable surveys had him in the 14 to 16 percent range. As an open primary state, he had the opportunity to pull disaffected Democrats.
Instead of going all-out to finish a strong fourth, putting space between himself and Jeb and getting close to Rubio, Kasich chose to divide his attention. He took trips to Michigan, Massachusetts, and elsewhere during the run up to the South Carolina vote.
Nobody criticized this at the time. Few were really that concerned with what Kasich was doing with his campaign. It wasn’t like a possible front runner was doing something strategically questionable.
In retrospect, it was a lethal mistake. Plenty of GOP voters now like Kasich. Especially in the states he wants to compete in, his favorability +/- numbers are now at least in line with the top contenders, often higher.
But his support is dropping. He isn’t viewed as a plausible contender, even in the places he’s spending more time. In Massachusetts, he’s dropped from 19 to 17 to 11.
Michigan tells a similar story, going from 17 to 12 to 11 to 10. In both cases, Kasich went from leading Rubio to trailing Cruz. The most recent polls have him fourth and dropping in two states where he really needs to finish second.
It’s not like Kasich’s message has changed. If anything, you would think the current Trump-Rubio rumble would help him with voters who would like to see some seriousness. Usually, when two candidates brawl in a race with others, a third candidate benefits.
In these states, the beneficiary (if anyone) is Cruz, not Kasich. The reason is Kasich wound up in single digits in South Carolina and low single digits in Nevada. He doesn’t look plausible. A new CNN/ORC national poll putting him at 6 percent isn’t going to help.
The week leading up to South Carolina was the most attention Kasich was going to get without actually winning somewhere. The national political media had swarmed to the Palmetto State.
While few media outlets were assigning top people to follow his campaign just yet, had he stayed in a geographic range where the Big Foots could easily follow a town hall, or jump on his bus for an interview, the momentum could have continued.
Instead, he decamped for Michigan, where nobody was going to follow him. With his overall strategy preventing a stream of attacks on Trump, he didn’t have any margin for error in grabbing attention.
This is similar to the difficulty Fiorina had in leveraging positive momentum to stay semi-permanently in the limelight. As much as people sometimes criticize Trump for seemingly only caring about the next news cycle, this proves the importance of that tactic.
The other candidates have no chance of dominating the discourse the way Trump does, but having a new angle every couple/few days matters. So does staying where reporters and cameras can find you.
Anyway, what’s done (or not done) is done. Kasich has no momentum. He’s not going to register in the SEC states tomorrow. He won’t qualify for delegates in the southern states with thresholds of 15% or 20%.
He’s not likely to reach double digits in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, or Oklahoma. Kasich polls at 8 or 9 percent in a couple of these places, so maybe he gets lucky, but there’s still a gap between there and winning delegates.
Unfortunately, his numbers in Massachusetts are now similar. You might think Minnesota is a good opportunity, but it’s a caucus, putting a priority on ground organization Kasich doesn’t possess. It was also a Rick Santorum state, another anti-Kasich indicator.
There’s an absence of recent data in Vermont, but the one poll taken from 2/3-2/17 didn’t show anything to indicate he should run that far ahead of his Massachusetts number. If this is his one second place finish, pundits will discount it as being part of his New Hampshire fluke.
No polls in Alaska since early January. Rubio isn’t popular there, so there’s a chance he finishes third behind Trump/Cruz, but next to Vermont, the place where his result would have the least impact.
Kasich has already said he will leave the race if he doesn’t win Ohio. Logical enough. His Ohio result is dependent on how he’s doing elsewhere. I outlined the theory above, but polling numbers from Quinnipiac back it up.
He’s gone from 27 to 13 to 26 percent support depending on his national standing. The most recent poll was taken pre-South Carolina. I would estimate he’s currently at 20% or so at home based on the overall trend.
We can’t assume Kasich’s top priority is to stop Trump, whatever his reservations about him may or may not be. Christie endorsed The Donald. Jeb has passed on endorsing Rubio so far. It’s possible Kasich thinks Trump is preferable to a freshman senator.
If he was going to listen to what insiders think, he would have abandoned the race already. Do not expect him to vacate to make it easier to stop Trump, or to improve his standing in D.C.
He may want to avoid being rebuked by his own constituents though. If so, a poor Michigan finish may lead to him dropping out before Ohio. Kasich might be hopeful, but probably isn’t delusional. He knows 10% in Michigan does not translate to 33% in Ohio.
Would he bail after a poor Super Tuesday? Possible, but unlikely. He’s invested the better part of a year in this effort and there’s another debate on March 3. If Carson drops out, he’d find himself one of only four on stage.
The optics of four are very different than five. In the last debate, it was easy for cameras to frame Trump in the middle, with attacking senators on each side. Kasich and Carson were often afterthoughts.
There is no center point with four. Trump would stand in the middle with Cruz or Rubio, depending on how they do the math. Kasich is more likely to get his full share of attention. If Carson is still around, expect a repeat of the last round.
Kasich has a virtually impossible road after failing to make more progress in South Carolina. However, if a Cruz victory in Texas is the only thing preventing a Trump sweep on Super Tuesday, he’s not going to want to make way for a winless Rubio.
While it would certainly help for Rubio to win Florida on March 15, any anti-Trump contender is going to need to win elsewhere that day too (or instead if Marco can’t lock down his home state).
Ohio is one of the better targets, and the other full winner-take-all state. Trump’s support has remained in a range where someone else could top it. That won’t happen if Kasich is weakened, but still participating. Not enough votes to go around.
Unless Cruz and Rubio both noticeably underperform their already diminished Super Tuesday expectations, Kasich remains blocked, but his influence on the race remains.
It’s unlikely his presence will change any or many outcomes tomorrow, but his continued presence on March 15 is another matter. Ted and Marco have two things to think about. Conquering the other senator and when Kasich exits.
Beating Trump on all but the most favorable turf is impossible until those things are resolved.